Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Hookwormridden Heirs or Good Stock?: Confronting Social Crisis in Light in August

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Hookwormridden Heirs or Good Stock?: Confronting Social Crisis in Light in August

Article excerpt

IN ITS OPENING PAGES, LIGHT IN AUGUST VIVIDLY DESCRIBES THE DAMAGE caused by a lumber mill in rural Alabama:

   It had been there seven years and in seven years more it would
   destroy all the timber within its reach. Then some of the machinery
   and most of the men who ran it and existed because of and for it
   would be loaded onto freight cars and moved away. But some of the
   machinery would be left ... gaunt, staring, motionless wheels rising
   from mounds of brick rubble and ragged weeds ... a stumppocked scene
   of profound and peaceful desolation, unplowed, untilled, gutting
   slowly into red and choked ravines.... Then the hamlet ... would
   not now even be remembered by the hookwormridden heirs at large who
   pulled the buildings down and burned them in cookstoves and winter
   grates. (4-5)

This passage shows William Faulkner's concern for those many Southerners who struggled against desperate conditions during the Great Depression. Here and elsewhere, Light in August seems to evince genuine anxiety about social conditions and point to the structural causes of these conditions. (1) In his revisions Faulkner made this critique even more explicit. The manuscript's phrase "All the men in the village worked at the mill" became "worked in the mill or for it," a change which stressed the lumber industry's domination of rural communities. Similarly, "some of the machinery and most of the men who ran it could be loaded onto cars and moved away" became "some of the machinery and most of the men who ran it and existed because of and for it," a change which also suggested, in near Marxist terms, the condition of alienated labor. In addition, Faulkner changed "hookworm ridden people" to "hookwormridden heirs at large" to emphasize the continuity of poverty and illness across generations (Light in August 1986).

That Light in August should reveal anxiety about social conditions is understandable: Faulkner wrote it during the worst years of the Depression, beginning August 17, 1931, and finishing the first draft February 19, 1932 (Blotner 701,764). During this rime, net income in the US fell from ninety to forty-two billion dollars. By the end of 1932, fifteen million Americans--thirty-one percent of the population--were unemployed (Bauman 3). Mississippi suffered greatly, in 1932 having a debt of fourteen million dollars with only a thousand dollars in its treasury (Daniel 111). On a single day in April 1932 a vast quantity of land was auctioned off to pay back taxes--"a fourth of the entire area of Mississippi," writes George Tindall, "went under the hammer" (355).

The Oxford Eagle frequently commented on these hard rimes, this "melancholy financial situation, the likes of which has never vexed the taxpayers of the commonwealth." "The entire human economic structure," the Eaglewrote, "has been brought to the verge of ruin under the difficulties that have swept over not only the nation but the entire world" ("Hard Times"). The Eagle also offered suggestions for ending this crisis. Foremost among these was the view that the Depression could be overcome by a change in individual psychologies: "If we were a little more optimistic, a little more sympathetic with our fellow man, a little more confident in our abilities . . . we would not have business depression, farm relief, or the unemployment to be worried about" ("Hoarded"). People should realize, according to the Eagle, that the suffering caused by the Depression could actually be beneficial: "It is a good thing for humanity that life is not always pleasant and easy. Intelligence, ability and character are developed best in the face of adversity. And the harder the struggle, the more fun there is in looking back" ("The Cure"). These problems could also be solved through neighborly kindness and assistance. Oxford citizens were advised to "Help a deserving man or woman to get a little paying work or better, a regular job" ("Hoarded"). …

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